Koichi Wakata, who served as the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station, returned to Earth on May 14 after completing his fourth space mission. He reached the spacecraft in November, became its 39th commander on March 9 — the first Asian to head the space station — and safely operated the spacecraft for 66 days.

We congratulate Wakata on his achievements as an astronaut. Since he first boarded Space Shuttle Endeavor as a mission specialist in January 1996, his total time in space across four space trips has amounted to 348 days, the longest for a Japanese and followed by Soichi Noguchi’s 177 days.

Wakata took part in the development of a robot arm and other equipment used in space and participated in the construction of the ISS as a robot arm operator. But apart from Wakata’s achievements, Japan needs to consider whether its participation in the ISS project has produced benefits that justify the large amount of money it has spent.

A Japanese astronaut is expected to board the ISS in 2015 and another in 2016. But the ISS is scheduled to end its operation in 2020 at the earliest.

The Japanese government has so far spent some ¥826 billion on the project and plans to use another ¥35.7 billion in fiscal 2014. Its noteworthy national financial contribution to the project is comparable to that of Europe as a whole though smaller than the United States.’

The government justifies Japan’s participation in the ISS project by saying that it has been able to use the manned spacecraft by paying just one-hundredth the cost shouldered by the U.S. Through the project, the nation has acquired technological progress that contributes to the promotion of industries, and participation by Japanese astronauts has given hope to many Japanese youths, it says.

But attention also needs be paid to the critical view of some regarding manned space flights like the ISS project. At a dark- energy workshop at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore in September 2007, Steven Weinberg, a particle physicist at the University of Texas and a co-recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics, said: “The International Space Station is an orbital turkey. No important science has come out of it. I could almost say no science has come out of it.

“And I would go beyond that and say that the whole manned spaceflight program, which is so enormously expensive, has produced nothing of scientific value.”

For example, manned space flight was used to repair the Hubble Telescope, which was carried into orbit by a Space Shuttle in 1990. Although Hubble succeeded in shedding light on the age and expansion of space, it might have accomplished more at far lower costs if it had been placed in an orbit much farther away from Earth, and thus more suitable for space observation, as a throwaway space probe.

Sending unmanned space probes to Mars multiple times would also be less costly, result in more technological and scientific achievements, and contribute more to advancement of industries than sending a manned spacecraft to the planet.

We should recall how much the Hayabusa unmanned space probe accomplished in studying an asteroid. Hayabusa, launched in May 2003, brought sample material from asteroid 25143 Itokawa to Earth in June 2010 at a cost of only about ¥20 billion. As budget pressures strengthen, Japan’s experts and taxpayers should seriously consider what approach will best serve its needs for space observation and exploration. The discussions should not be left to bureaucrats and politicians.

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